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David Copperfield

David Copperfield

Author: Charles Dickens
First published: 1849-50, by Bradbury and Evans

WARNING: Plot spoiler

The year before he died, Dickens called this novel “his favorite child.” While it is not exactly mine, I can see why it was his. In David Copperfield, Dickens created some of the most memorable—if not the most memorable—characters in his entire career. Even Virginia Woolf, who had no great deal of admiration for Dickens, admitted that David Copperfield was a novel so memorable and influential, that the story and characters had become part of most peoples’ consciousness from the days before they could even read.

The full banquet of Dickensian characters is present here in fine form, and you cannot help but love them. It’s one of the reasons why David Copperfield, in conjunction with Great Expectations, is sometimes the novel I tell people to read if they’ve never read Dickens before. You meet some of Dickens’s most likable and hilarious characters: Aunt Betsy Trotwood, Clara Pegotty and her brother, Mr. Dick (“Have him measured for a suit of clothes directly”), the “volatile” Miss Mowcher, Mrs. Micawber, and of course, Mr. Wilkins Micawber. You also encounter some of Dickens’s darkest and unlikable creations: Rosa Dartle, Mr. and Mrs. Murdstone, James Steerforth, and the unctuous Uriah Heep and his mother, who hang “like two great bats” over the whole of the Wickfield house.

Dickens has been criticized through the years, and often rightly so, for developing “flat” (as opposed to “round”) characters. These distinctions were first put forth by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel. In that work, Forster uses Mrs. Micawber as the paradigmatic example of what a flat character is:

The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.” There is Mrs. Micawber—she says she won’t desert Mr. Micawber, she doesn’t, and there she is.

Touché Mr. Forster! He’s right—and there she is—but we’ll take more of her and her kind any day.

There are also those characters—and certainly moments—in this novel that tend towards the round. Though I find the Victorian “angel of the house” ideology in David Copperfield nauseating at times, I think Dickens treats two scenes in particular with incredible skill and emotional poignancy. The first is the discovery of Emily’s elopement with Steerforth (Chapter 31, “A Greater Loss”), and the second is the death of Dora Copperfield (Chapter 53, “Another Retrospect”). In both of these scenes, which have the potential to become un-retractable train wrecks of sentimentality and melodrama, Dickens renders the emotional turbulence that informs these moments with great respect and tranquillity—almost reservation, as if these tragic occurrences were no less a part of the natural fabric of life than Mr. Micawber’s insolvency. Mr. Pegotty’s heartbreak is palpable; and Dora Copperfield’s apologies are enough to make any reader reflect on lifetimes filled with regret. Here then is the artist toiling away at his craft, proving that this most sentimental and melodramatic of writers was also a supreme journalist who chronicled with exactitude the nuances of the human heart.

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